For humans, this side of eternity, the demands of justice are complicated, and we will often disagree on what justice looks like. This debate about the nature of justice is often complicated by the human tendency to think in terms of abstractions and stereotypes, rather than trying to get to grips with the all-important detail of particular cases.
For humans, this side of eternity, the demands of justice are complicated, and we will often disagree on what justice looks like.
We have seen this recently with two high-profile murder trials in the United States. A few weeks back, in the state of Wisconsin, a jury determined that Kyle Rittenhouse acted lawfully when he shot three men who had attacked him as he helped to defend property during a riot last August. Many media reactions, both at the time and during the trial, avoided any serious discussion of exactly what had happened. Instead, the tragic series of events were packaged into a handy pre-existing template that suited the ideological views of those commenting. So Mr Rittenhouse was labelled a “white supremacist” by Facebook, which prevented him from using their platform to raise money for his defence (the men he shot were all white and no evidence of racial motivation to any of his actions was ever produced). One Christian writer compared him to the man who murdered nine black people in cold blood in a church in 2015. Even after his acquittal, Slate magazine insisted that he was an “active shooter”, a term normally used to describe people who are deliberately looking for victims, rather than defending themselves.
A few days after the Rittenhouse verdict, a jury in Georgia pronounced a guilty verdict on three white men who had chased an innocent black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, and killed him. Reading about the case, it is clear that the three murderers had a totally deficient idea of what justice required of them when they suspected – groundlessly – that Arbery was stealing from a local building site. Their response, of arming themselves and pursuing him in a car, was wildly disproportionate and dangerous, and informed not by facts but by assumptions. After the killing had taken place, local police appear to have dragged their feet because they accepted too easily the culprits’ explanation, rooted in prejudice though it was.
Many miscarriages of justice are caused by a refusal to think beyond our ready-made and inadequate categories
A terrible crime occurred and justice was not done because individuals viewed a situation not on its own merits, but through the distorting prism of their general views about classes of people. Many miscarriages of justice are caused by this refusal to think beyond our ready-made and inadequate categories, for example the wrongful convictions of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, which stemmed at least partly from an anti-Irish mood in 1970s Britain.
For the Catholic tradition, justice is a cardinal virtue. But the Catechism is careful to define the concept in such a way as to make clear that we must not deal in generalisations, stating that “justice consists in the firm and constant will to give to others their due”. The Bible often stresses that to act justly is to act in accordance with the truth. One example is in Matthew 18, when Jesus teaches the disciples how to settle disputes in the church.
The point here is that the truth of any given situation is not something that can be established by relying on our views about how the world should be, or on our grand narratives and frameworks. As the poet William Blake said, “He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars; general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer”.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist.
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